Reports indicate that the Pirates have agreed to terms on a one-year, $3.9M deal with free agent righty Neftali Feliz. The deal includes $660K in possible incentives. To make room on the 40-man roster, the team designated catcher Tony Sanchez for assignment.
Feliz is best known for his strong debut with the Rangers, after being included in the Mark Teixeira deal, in 2009-10. He fanned well over a batter an inning and saved 40 games in 2010. A lot of fans might be surprised to know, however, that Feliz hasn't fanned more than 7.8 per nine innings since that year. In 2012, he fell victim to the Nolan Ryan-led "toughen up the pitchers" fad, as Texas tried to make him a starter. Tommy John surgery cost him most of 2012-13. Feliz split 2014 between AAA and the majors, posting a 1.99 ERA in 30 games with Texas, but with an xFIP of 4.60, as a .176 BABIP drove his success. Feliz split 2015 between Texas and Detroit, posting a disastrous 7.31 ERA, although his xFIP was merely bad at 4.42. After striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings in 2014, he rebounded to 7.3 in 2015.
The Pirates are obviously taking a risk here. Feliz rode a 96 mph fastball to his early success, but he was not one of the majority of pitchers who recover well from TJ surgery. His velocity dropped below 94 after the procedure, bouncing back to 94.6 in 2015. His frequency of getting swings and misses dropped from nearly 12% in his first two years to less than 9% before rebounding, again just partially, to around 10% the last two years. Possibly to compensate for the lost velocity, he started relying more heavily on a slider in 2015. He's a flyball pitcher.
The Pirates probably envision Feliz taking over the role filled late in 2015 by Joakim Soria. Whether they think he'll be healthier, or that he can make progress by throwing more two-seam fastballs (which he's seldom thrown in the past), or that he needs mechanical changes, or whether they're just rolling the dice on a guy who was really good five years ago remains to be seen.
Sanchez was controversial among Pirate fans from the time the team made him the fourth overall selection in the 2009 draft. The selection was widely regarded as an overdraft and may have been influenced by two interrelated factors. One was the uninspiring talent level of the top-rated draft prospects and the other was the Pirates' plan to spend well above the recommended slot amounts on high school pitchers later in the draft. The fact that all those high school pitchers flopped didn't help appease the fans, although that can't be laid at Sanchez' feet. What can be is his erratic play, especially his significant problems in controlling the running game and his penchant for errors. He also was erratic at the plate, although he generally hit well in AAA. Sanchez appeared in 51 games for the Pirates, posting a 259/303/378 batting line and throwing out 17% of base stealers.
The Pirates will have ten days to work out a deal for Sanchez, although he isn't likely to bring a meaningful return. It's even possible he could clear waivers.